Dan’s Reflections on the Food Conference: Making a Home on the Mountain

What do a Kosher, free- range chicken distributor, a pulpit rabbi from LA who composts and the program director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure have in common? Well for one thing, they all recently had the opportunity to attend the 2010 Hazon Food Conference in Petaluma, California. This conference brings together some of the most innovative and progressive thinkers in the world of Jewish environmentalism for four days of learning and discussion. Yes, the program director mentioned above is me, and I have been sitting in front of this computer for weeks since the conference trying to figure out what I want to say regarding my experience.

The first entry I wrote but never posted praised the energy and inspiration of all the participants, but I felt that it didn’t do justice to the amazing projects all around the country in which people are engaged.

So the second entry I wrote but never posted was about how impressed I was with people who are turning their fantastic ideas in realities. There are some really amazing projects out there that are being actualized this moment. Kosher, free range meat, a heksher that certifies the ethical standards of food products in addition to the halachic kashrut, the building of a Jewish land based community outside of Baltimore to name a few. But this entry didn’t express how impressed I also was with the many people who are not in a place to devote their lives and careers to environmental Judaism, but attended the conference just out of person interest and passion.

Feeling defeated, I tried to change my attitude and my third blog attempt was a critique of the scholarship behind environmental Judaism. I wrote that we rely so heavily on a small group of texts to support what we consider to be a revolutionary movement. I cynically pointed out that every class, lecture or conference on Jewish environmental topics explores the same texts as the previous one as if they had discovered something totally radical. But thinking about it, I realized I wasn’t being fair. While I do feel there is a need for an intermediate track of Jewish learning around environmentalism, the fact is, I have learned so much about this different face of Judaism I never experienced in my childhood education, and even though the texts express the same words each time I see them, the meaning I gain from them is always different, and isn’t that one of the truly amazing aspects of Jewish learning?

So where does that leave me? Three failed blog entries later, I was back where I started, so I turned to the wisdom of our Tradition to guide me. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an 18th century mystic, describes three stages of spiritual growth: the mountain, the field and the city. The mountain is a place that is wild and unpredictable; there we might face adversity at any moment.  The field is our attempt to make sense of this chaos, where we can feel the influence of our own order while still being at the mercy of the variances of nature. The city is the place we can dwell most comfortably, where we have the most control of ourselves and our surroundings. Rebbe Nachman teaches it is our spiritual mission to leave behind the mountain and move to the city. My understanding of this teaching is not that we are somehow supposed to leave the uncertainty of mountain; life is wild and unpredictable and there is little we can do to change that. But rather, we must equip ourselves with the tools and consciousness to live comfortably in this unpredictable and challenging reality. We must make the mountain feel like a city.

And that, my friends, is what I think people in the Jewish environmental movement are doing.  We are learning and teaching the skills that make us feel more comfortable and excited in our own tradition, more at ease as ethically conscious beings, and more competent in providing for ourselves and living as a truly integrated piece of the amazing natural world that G-d created. That is the common thread, and whether we are doing through a kitchen compost bucket, an educational institution, or a green business, intellectually, physically, or spiritually, we are all doing our part to build our home on the mountain.

As my thoughts turn toward camp this summer, I think of some of the mountains we will face. Maybe it is coming to camp for the first time, or practicing skills outside of our comfort zone. It may be experiencing things that frighten us, or simply creating a recycling program at a location that is 10 miles down a mountainous, dirt road. Perhaps  it’s creating a community at camp that exemplifies our ideals, or even figuring out what those ideals are. These mountains are daunting, but if there is one thing in which I am confident after seeing the drive and inspiration of our 2010 chalutzim and staff, as well as experiencing the competence and passion in those involved in the Jewish environmental world, the mountains that may daunt us now will quickly become a place where we feel at home. To me, this is a pretty strong metaphor for a camp that makes its physical home high in the mountains.

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